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The Secret History of Jane Eyre: How Charlotte Brontë Wrote Her Masterpiece Hardcover – June 27, 2017
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“Pfordresher matches the events of Brontë's life with those of her heroine step by step, showing where they overlap and where they meaningfully diverge.”
- John Williams, New York Times Book Review
“A wildly readable introduction to [Jane Eyre] and [Charlotte Brontë].”
- Elizabeth Lowry, Wall Street Journal
“The psychologizing, speculation, and parallel-hunting [in The Secret History of Jane Eyre] are interesting and occasionally haunting. . . . Fans of the novel will enjoy this behind-the-scenes investigation into Jane Eyre and the imagination of its author.”
- Publishers Weekly
“A helpful guide to [Jane Eyre] as a Rorschach blot of a singular Romantic temperament.”
- Kirkus Reviews
““[Pfordresher’s] direct and assessable arguments . . . uncover surprising parallels between Charlotte’s life . . . and her creation. . . . Revelatory analysis.”
- British Heritage
“Pfordresher . . . uses [Jane Eyre] as a kind of treasure map. . . . [The Secret History of Jane Eyre] is a fascinating and authoritative book, written with intelligence, wit and affection, and full of surprises. Reader, I recommend it.”
- Deborah Mason, BookPage
“With sensitivity and grace, this new look into the autobiographical sources of Jane Eyre wonderfully enlarges our understanding of the novel by revealing how much it was shaped by the private aspirations and sorrows of Charlotte Brontë, a romantic figure who left traces of her own life on almost every page of her fiction.”
- Michael Shelden, author of Melville in Love and Orwell: The Authorized Biography
“With a detective’s zeal, Pfordresher hunts for the elusive springs of the creative force. He turns the mystery of genius into a thrilling tale.”
- Deborah Lutz, author of The Brontë Cabinet
About the Author
John Pfordresher is a professor of English at Georgetown University. He lives in Arlington, Virginia.
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Top customer reviews
I don't doubt that this book will outline an exciting narrative and will be very enjoyable for many readers, but it's disappointing to see so many inaccuracies so early on.
At the onset of the biography, we are introduced to Brontë and her brother, Branwell, who create fantasy worlds together in their serial novel that is set in the imaginary land of Angria. This universe is her joy. Yet when she writes to poet laureate Robert Southey for advice, she’s thrust away from the world to which she had escaped for years. After sharing two of her poems, and her innermost feelings regarding writing, Southey tells her, "The day dreams in which you habitually indulge are likely to induce a distempered state of mind.” He continues to say that her Angrian world will prevent her from writing anything more. Since Brontë already suffers from depression, her anxiety concerning her mental state increases with this news. Southey carries on: “Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life: & it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it, even as an accomplishment & a recreation." He clearly does not know that Brontë is a force to be reckoned with, and that writing will be not only her business, but also her legacy.
Brontë grew up motherless, as her mother died when she was very young. She was raised by her father Patrick, an Irish priest who relocated to England. Throughout the book, Patrick is depicted as a stoic man who is not fond of emotion. He provides for his family and expects them to be proper and fulfill their duties. Yet his living children --- Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell --- yearn to live a creative life. Brontë suffers extensively due to her poor financial status and inability to make money from writing. She must take governess jobs with families that are not more educated, but have more money than she does. In these homes, she is physically abused by the children, and emotionally and verbally abused by the matriarchs. These experiences draw similarities to Jane Eyre’s time in the Reed home, where she was mistreated by her male cousin.
Furthermore, Cowan Bridge, the institution Brontë attended with her sisters as a child, draws similarities to Lowood in JANE EYRE. Cowan Bridge was meant to be a Clergy Daughters’ School with a religious mission, but as Brontë insightfully noted, it did not adhere to the verses in the Bible that speak of peace, tolerance and love. Instead, the Brontë sisters were physically harmed and lived in treacherous conditions. Maria and Elizabeth became severely ill while at Cowan Bridge and died shortly after being sent home. Their deaths inspired the beloved Helen Burns in JANE EYRE. Brontë eventually leaves Cowan Bridge. She also leaves her first governess job on bad terms, and the second on better terms, yet she equally loathes both positions. She is a writer who yearns to be free from the clutches of toxic people and institutions, but does not yet understand the extent of her talents, and perhaps that’s what keeps her from seeing the bigger picture. That will soon change.
At the age of 19, Brontë returns to Roe Head as a teacher and meets the professor who will spark the candles of romance inside her: the married Monsieur Heger of Brussels. In Pfordresher’s biography, it is said that, in some ways, both Heger and Brontë’s father are the inspiration for Jane Eyre’s infamous love, Mr. Rochester. Since Heger was married and virtually ignored Brontë’s letters after she was no longer his pupil, Mr. Rochester was the wish fulfillment of a love that was not yet realized. Mr. Rochester’s stoicism and high sex drive are said to be characteristics drawn from Patrick, who was coarse and earnestly sought after women subsequent to losing his wife. Other characters in JANE EYRE are inspired by those who are real; one includes Branwell, who allegedly inspired the violent Bertha Mason. Branwell’s demise was tragic, as his alcoholism, addictions, wild ways and other factors led to his being overtaken by tuberculosis.
Elizabeth Gaskell's biography is said to be the gem that further immortalized Charlotte Brontë. Pfordresher thanks her --- and we thank them both for keeping this cherished author alive.
Reviewed by Bianca Ambrosio.